Welcome!

If you're just coming here for the first time, uh... you're late. The site is no longer updated daily (see HERE for the story). But it's still kicking 1-2x a week, and it's better late than never! Before reading any of the "reviews", you should read the intro, the FAQ, the MOVIES I HAVE ALREADY SEEN list, and if you want, the glossary of genre terms and "What is Horror?", which explains some of the "that's not horror!" entries. And to keep things clean, all off topic posts are re-dated to be in JANUARY 2007 (which was before I began doing this little project) once they have 'expired' (i.e. are 10 days old).

Due to many people commenting "I have to see this movie!" after a review, I have decided to add Amazon links within the reviews (they are located at the bottom), as well as a few links to the Horror Movie A Day Store around the page, hopefully non-obstructively. Amazon will also automatically link things they find relevant, so there might be a few random links in a review as well. If they become annoying, I'll remove the functionality. Right now I'm just kind of amused what they come up with (for example, they highlighted 'a horror movie' in the middle of one review and it links to, of all things, the 50 Chilling Movies Budget Pack!!!).

Last but not least, some reviews contain spoilers (NOTE - With a few exceptions, anything written on the back of the DVD or that occurs less than halfway through the movie I do NOT consider a spoiler). I will be adding 'spoiler alerts' for these reviews as I go through and re-do the older reviews (longtime readers may notice that there is now a 'show more' which cleaned up the main page, as well as listing the source of the movie I watched, i.e. Theaters, DVD, TV) to reflect the new format. This is time consuming, so bear with me.

Thanks for coming by and be sure to leave comments, play nice, and as always, watch Cathy's Curse.

PLEASE, GO ON...

Ghosthouse/Witchery (1988)

JUNE 28, 2015

GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

The only thing Italian horror producers did better than rip off American genre movies was shamelessly rename the movies to make them look like sequels to unrelated properties, either for their own distribution or when sending them elsewhere. Sometimes they were their own productions, such as Beyond The Door (a film that got a "sequel" in Shock) and other times they'd piggyback on American franchises. For example, the Evil Dead series was renamed La Casa* over there, and after Evil Dead 2/La Casa 2 was an even bigger draw there than in its native US, they saw fit to continue the series with at least three "sequels", including Ghosthouse (aka La Casa 3) and Witchery (aka La Casa 4, and also Witchcraft, not to be confused with the long-running DTV series). These two are making their blu-ray debut this week, and if it's successful enough maybe Scream Factory can bring us La Casa 5, better (?) known as Beyond Darkness. (UPDATE! I wrote this review all week - see last paragraph for reasons - and a day after I wrote that part Scream indeed announced that the film will be released later this year)

Interestingly, unlike all those demon-less Demons sequels (or the infamous Troll 2), these movies are at least thematically similar to the Evil Dead films - one of them even involves a tape recording! Both involve a bunch of folks meeting up at a creepy place, and in both the evil force wipes out pretty much everyone in a variety of ways. They might lack the energy and creativity of Raimi's films, but if this was 1988 or 1989 and the internet didn't exist to quickly inform me that I was watching something completely unrelated, I'd be... well, not fooled, but at least not as angry as I was when I was 14, buying a movie I was led to believe was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead and seeing some voodoo zombie stuff (that would be Fulci's Zombie - I've since come around). Compared to most of these retitled things, these movies are Saw-level tight with Evil Dead.

Not sure which one I prefer of the two; they're both pretty entertaining, and what could have been a Massachusetts bias in favor of Ghosthouse turned out to be a moot point - Witchery was set there too! They even share a police car from Scituate, which is the (real) seaside town where the films were shot, another thing that makes this fake series almost plausibly connected (they beat Marvel to the punch by like 20 years!). I guess in that regard Ghosthouse would get the edge because it has a few scenes in Boston proper (including a bit at Faneuil Hall), but either way it was a nice surprise - MA-shot films are pretty rare, so I certainly wasn't expecting to see my old neighborhood in a random Italian flick, let alone in two of them.

Ghosthouse also lacks David Hasselhoff. It's not Witchery's fault that he became such a joke, but it was nearly impossible for me to watch it without thinking of the reality show mainstay that is synonymous with "lazy stunt casting" nowadays. In 1988 he was still the handsome hero of a recently ended long-running series (Knight Rider), so it'd be the equivalent of getting someone like Jeff Donovan from Burn Notice today - hardly something to laugh at, and probably helped the movie get sold (whereas now it'd probably be a red flag). He's actually not bad as a photographer who ends up getting trapped in the seaside hotel with his wife, some prospective buyers, and a really bad child actor, but every 5 minutes I'd just get a Baywatch image in my head, or worse, the bloated dude eating a cheeseburger off the floor. Linda Blair is the movie's other big star and thankfully she doesn't have that notoriety - she may always be "the girl from Exorcist" but she never really tainted her brand the way her co-star has. She also gets possessed briefly in the 3rd act, which was a surprise - I figured she'd rather avoid the obvious comparison and skip roles that required such behavior (not counting Repossessed, of course).

The location goes a long way to making up for Hoffstraction, however. I've always been intrigued by big hotels set right on the water; we used to go to Maine in the summer and I knew from the odd trip to check on our trailer (it was one of those family campgrounds - we'd leave our big ass trailer there all year round even though the campground was only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day) that the area was pretty much a ghost town in the off season, so I'd be curious about those giant hotels that had to be completely empty for months on end (my early viewing of The Shining probably informed some of this). But such locales are rarely used in horror films; sadly, Puppet Master is the only other one that readily comes to mind. Unfortunately they don't get too much use of it, holing up in a couple of distinct rooms and limiting the exploration to a few scenes (I think we see more in the mostly horror-free early "tour" we get of the place than we do once the shit hits the fan), but it still makes for an interesting setting. There's a great bit where the witch/ghost thing traps them all inside and shuts all the lights off as a would-be rescue chopper flies overhead - allowing you to see the hotel in all its glory as their searchlight scans all of the windows.

Plus it's about a witch! Maybe I just pick wrong, but it seems the Italians were afraid of being compared to Argento and thus left most of the witching to him, while they tackled zombies and black-gloved killers, plus the odd supernatural silliness (director Fabrizio Laurenti's next film was the incredible killer tree movie Contamination .7, which, sigh, is also known as Troll 3). But not here, it's a legit witch witch carrying out witch-y type killings like crucifying someone and roasting them on an upside down cross (the devil also pops up for good measure). It doesn't make a hell of a lot of conventional sense, but it's tough to pick out the obvious survivor from their introductions, offers some decent gore and various kills, and offers one of the more abrupt attempts at an epilogue I've ever seen (seriously, it's like 12 seconds long and hilariously blunt). And the old bitchy lady gets killed early - I've gotten used to the "let's keep the asshole around so we can build up to a spectacular death!" way of thinking, so it's nice to see a movie that opts to get rid of its unlikable character early and keep only the sympathetic ones around for a while.

As for Ghosthouse, the characters aren't as diverse - buncha twenty-somethings, including two blond guys I had trouble telling apart, leading to some confusion (luckily, one of them is killed off early). But the story, involving a little ghost girl who terrorizes them in typical haunted house ways (including a pretty great bit where the floor breaks apart and a guy nearly drowns in milk), plus a deranged handyman killing people for trespassing for good measure, makes up for the bland protagonists. It also has one of my favorite "doctor explains a death" scenes in movie history, where he tells the cop that a corpse couldn't have been killed by another person due to the angle of the cut on their neck, and thus it HAD to be a piece of the fan breaking off and flying into the guy via centrifugal force (he explains this kind of casually, as if it happens often).

But the real draw is the very odd hitchhiker that our heroes pick up and get rid of on the way to the house. He's pretty delightful for a hitchhiker, probably because he doesn't know how to do it properly - he stands in the middle of the road, for one thing, and later he risks the hero's life by trying to scare him with a skeleton arm thing while he's driving. They get rid of him not long after that, but he returns later, scaring a different character with the same prop before entering the haunted house, scoffing at a bag of cookies in favor of a box of croutons (?), and then gets killed not long after that. His scenes are so disconnected that you'd swear he was added into the narrative after test screenings, but the girl he scared on his second appearance talks about him later, which seems like a detail that they'd skip if it was a late addition (her description is amazing too; her friend doubts she really saw anyone and she's like "He had a skeleton arm!" without explaining it was a toy). I could have watched a whole movie about this guy just goofing off on the fringes of a more exciting storyline.

This fella aside, one thing I liked about the movie is how it split the two groups of protagonists up, letting two of them go back to the city to take the brunt of the less exciting plot development scenes while the rest of the characters wandered around at the house, often getting killed. If everyone stayed together you'd get the long exposition dumps, plus narrative hiccups where people would be getting killed two rooms away from someone sitting there reading an old newspaper or whatever, oblivious to the screaming. I know conventional logic is that a movie is scarier if you get the sense that they are kinda stuck there (like, well, Evil Dead!), and it DOES spoil the mood a bit when the hero goes back to his riverside office in Boston at the halfway point, but again - it keeps it stopping completely cold to deliver pages of backstory at once. And that means we're never too far from hearing the creepy-ass "theme" that accompanies the evil spirit - it sounds like a simple saying being played backwards, over and over along with equally unsettling music. The jump scares and such aren't particularly great here, but that music more than makes up for it (the clown doll is also appropriately "off" - much better than the one in Fauxltergeist). It's rare to enjoy a film for being goofy AND somewhat creepy, so kudos to Mattei for pulling it off, even if it wasn't intentional.

Mattei's usual hatred of "things that make sense" still comes through, however. In addition to characters getting angry over nothing (and forgetting about it a few seconds later), he offers a particularly head-slapping bit where a cop talks on his squad car's CB radio. A common enough scene, but Mattei inexplicably chose not to include the other side of the conversation, so the cop is sitting there with a two way handset, responding to an unheard voice with things like "When?" and "OK, I'll check that out!" or whatever, as if he was on a phone instead of a device where we should be able to hear the other person speaking. Mattei has always been one of the more random of this group (which includes Fulci, Lamberto Bava, Claudio Fragrasso, etc), and you'll be happy to know that this fits in nicely with his others in that respect.

All in all, a perfectly enjoyable double feature of a couple of movies that flew under the radar. By the late 80s, the Italian horror scene was starting to dry up, as they couldn't compete with the bigger budgeted, FX heavy movies the US was making, and there were fewer theatrical distributors for such fare as there was 4-5 years before. And it's not like they could just call Ghosthouse "Evil Dead 3" here, so the rather anonymous title probably did it no favors. Witchery fared SLIGHTLY better, in that I had heard of it a couple of times prior to seeing, but that's probably thanks to its more famous cast. I didn't recognize anyone in Ghosthouse; Witchery offered Blair, Hoff, plus the lovely Catherine Hickland, who was one of those actresses who would seemingly pop up on every TV show in the 80s (including Knight Rider!) and also had sizable roles on some soaps. She gets killed via swordfish, which is pretty great. Perhaps if the movies were more famous Scream would have put a little more effort into the presentation - the transfers are fine, but the movies don't even get their own sub-menus like they usually do for their double features. There's a main screen that offers both "Play Movie" and both trailers, with no scene selection (chapter breaks are included), and the subtitle option obnoxiously located in the center. It's basically what you'd expect from a disc that had a "Play All" option for a true double feature experience, but since it lacks that I can't help but feel it's a bit of a lazy setup.

But that's not really a dealbreaker, and more importantly it kicks off a month's worth of releases from Scream Factory of movies that I haven't seen. Next week is Robot Jox, and the week after that is another double feature: Cellar Dweller and Catacombs, followed by I, Madman, and finally Ghost Town (which also features Ms. Hickland, yay!). More often than not I've seen the movies they're putting out, which is why I usually write about them on Birth Movies Death (formerly Badass Digest) because I've already discussed them here. It's unusual to see so many new-to-me movies in a row (broken up only by Howling II), and they have some new ones too, such as Paul Solet's long awaited sophomore effort, Dark Summer (which I also haven't seen yet). So this place should be a little more lively in the weeks ahead! I apologize for the decreasing number of updates but it's all for a good reason - I've been working really hard to finish my 2nd draft of the HMAD book so I can clean it up and send it off to my editor and hopefully get it to you guys before Christmas (virtual stocking stuffer!). I've been seeing some stuff, but when it comes to time to write, I usually choose the book over writing a new review. Sorry!

What say you?

*In my room I have a giant poster for "La Casa 2" that I got relatively cheap at an auction, because the new title confused the audience that was paying triple digits for similarly oversized art for Dream Warriors and other films of that era. I'm pretty sure they thought it was a poster for House II (the big, Bates House-ish home right in the center of the image probably didn't help), so I was the only bidder and got it for 50 bucks. Score!

PLEASE, GO ON...

Dog Soldiers (2002)

JUNE 23, 2015

GENRE: WEREWOLF
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

It was only a few months before I started Horror Movie A Day that I saw Dog Soldiers for the first time, and the time-consuming process of keeping the site going meant I never got around to my planned 2nd viewing until now. What was once a potential "Non Canon" review (meaning, a review of a movie I had seen before and remembered a lot about) is now a traditional one, because I honestly couldn't remember much about it at all beyond the basic premise and the fact that I quite liked it. Longtime readers of HMAD know that the list of werewolf movies I enjoy is a pretty short one (basically the ones everyone likes, plus Big Bad Wolf), so when I say one is worth seeing, you know it's true!

(Unlike slasher movies. I really can't be trusted there.)

I think the reason Soldiers works for me as well as it does is the fact that it's not heavy with the werewolf mythology or even on-screen appearances. As Neil Marshall points out on his commentary, it's a movie about soldiers trying to survive, with the werewolves being the antagonist - if it was Nazis the movie would play out more or less the same way (the need for silver would be excised, I suspect). Indeed, one of the weaker moments of the movie is when they start diving into their backstory and explaining their connection to Ryan (Liam Cunningham), the film's obligatory asshole human. Who cares? All it does it take time away from the film's key assets, which include its breakneck pace (it's 104 minutes but feels like 85) and the loving camaraderie among the title characters. I've seen actual war movies that didn't develop such a strong bond among its primary group of heroes, even more impressive when you consider strong male bonds aren't exactly a hallmark of the horror genre.

f Plus it's nice to have a soldier-themed horror movie that's not a psychological thing about their guilt manifesting itself. I like Deathwatch and movies like that, but there are so many in that vein that it's practically a sub-genre. Otherwise, soldiers tend to only pop up in things like Aliens and its many ripoffs, where they're the backups to our real hero, and I think it's a missed opportunity considering an easy criticism of the genre as a whole is that you don't care enough about the characters and/or they don't seem to care about each other. Imagine a good slasher or something where the heroes are a "Band of Brothers" type group? One without ammo and grenades, I assume, or else the movie would be really short. Plus it's funny; I don't know if there's a term for movies that are frequently hilarious but you can't ever refer to them as comedies, but if so this would join Jaws and A Few Good Men alongside of them. Hell, it even has a goddamn Matrix joke that made me laugh instead of groan, something that was barely possible even at the time, let alone 15 years later.

As for the wolves, they're pretty good looking and all practical, thank Christ. The designers were clearly taking cues from Rob Bottin's The Howling's designs for their very tall beasties, but emphasizing the wolf look (in the face I mean), making them less "monstrous", though it's hard to tell given their gigantic size, quick cutting, and the (intentionally) dark cinematography that keeps us from getting too many strong looks at them. The movie has no transformation scene, with Marshall opting for the old-school trick of cutting away to someone's reaction of a transformation as it begins, then cutting back to a new stage already having been applied. On the making-of he defends this choice - they couldn't afford to do a big American Werewolf-style version, and he didn't want to use cheesy CGI morphing, so this was the best option and one that has its roots in the sort of movies that have kept the werewolf genre alive, so you can't really fault the decision.

You CAN fault Marshall's cutting though, which he thankfully never did himself again. There's an early scene where the soldiers are just talking about a soccer match or something and there's something like three cuts per second - it actually started to give me a headache. I don't mind this sort of stuff during frenetic action scenes (as long as it's clear what's going on, unlike say, Taken 3, which featured a car chase I literally could not understand), but when it's just a scene of people talking it makes me feel that the director or the producers or SOMEONE is assuming that we won't be interested and they're trying to make it look like an action scene. It's offensive, really. Later dialogue scenes, like when the last two men standing have their obligatory "One of us has to survive!" chat, it's cut calmly and sanely, so thankfully it's not an issue throughout the whole film, but when it happens so early on it kind of puts me in a "mood".

But that's really my only issue with the movie, which is a pretty good pros to cons ratio. The only other thing worth noting isn't their fault, but is causing so much controversy on the Scream Factory facebook page I figure I should mention it: the transfer. Apparently, the original negative for the film could not be found, so they had to use a pair of 35mm prints (that is, the same prints that a theater would show) to create this new high-def master. That would normally be mostly OK, but Dog Soldiers was shot on Super 16, so the 35mm prints were already blown up and not 100% representative of how the film looked, a problem that was exacerbated when putting together the high-def version for Blu-ray. This is why the new transfer is so grainy, but they also did a new color timing that Marshall signed off on (per his explanation on the SF page, the original version had mixed lighting causing continuity problems, so this was a chance to fix it). The grain I don't mind, but even with my hazy memories of the film I thought the new color looked wrong, and confirmed as much when I watched the bonus features, which used the older transfer (from the DVD) for its clips. Check out the comparison (old color on top, new color on bottom):



I should note that these are from the included DVD version, not the Blu-ray, but the two discs are taken from the same source, obviously. So while you can see that the new transfer has better detail and definition, the color has been shifted "lighter", which looks weird to me. I mean it all comes down to preference, and if Marshall prefers the new one I guess you can't exactly say he's wrong, but FWIW I think I prefer the older color. The brightening seems at odds with the film's exterior atmosphere; there's a part where someone says "It'll be dark soon" and it looks like it's early afternoon. Once they get to the house and lighting continuity was no longer an issue it's more in line with how it looked before; still a shift but nothing I find bothersome (so along with the improved detail it's overall easier to accept):



So like the editing, it's more of a problem with the way the movie starts, not how it ends up, and as Jurassic World is proving with its extraordinary box office run, it's more important to have a strong ending than a strong beginning. As for the extras themselves, they're pretty solid - the hour long retrospective is jampacked with fun info and recollections, such as how Kevin McKidd accidentally broke Sean Pertwee's nose during the bit where he has to knock him out, and also that he shot most of the movie with a broken bone of his one (his rib) due to an accident that occurred right before they started filming. There's also a terrific look at the set design process, with Simon Bowles showing the little model/layout he used (with toy soldier cutouts) to plan the impressive house set - which walls needed to be able to move away for the camera, how the actors could move about, etc. I always love watching that sort of thing, and the 15 minute length is perfect - long enough that it can be informative, but not so long that it starts to get boring. Marshall's fun short film Combat is also included, as is the very odd trailer that focuses on the lone female character. Finally, Marshall's commentary has some repeat info from the retrospective, and he occasionally drops to silence, but it's definitely worth a listen - not only does he explain the transfer issues, but he drops some pretty hilarious trivia, at one point even laughing about a Wikipedia claim that the film's original title was The Last Stand ("no it wasn't"). He also lays to rest the idea of a sequel and briefly explains how such talk originally started, as well as some ideas that were floating around.

Going back to the "It's about survival and werewolves just happen to be the obstacle" idea, Marshall did something similar with his followup, The Descent, of which I've always said would be a pretty scary movie even if the monsters never showed up. I'm not sure if that would work as well here, but it is interesting to see how he improved on this approach with his sophomore effort, when the original was pretty damn good to begin with. It's a bummer he has only made these two full blown horror features so far (he followed Descent with Doomsday, which had some genre elements but was mainly an action movie, and Centurion wasn't even remotely terror-related), though he's getting back into the game now with a piece in an upcoming anthology, and an episode of Hannibal (RIP) as well. I think he's a terrific filmmaker (I quite like all four of his films), and even if it's not a horror movie I can't wait until he makes another feature. Until then, at least I now have his entire filmography on Blu-ray to enjoy! When can I say the same for Carpenter or Craven? HUH? WHEN?!?!?!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Jurassic World (2015)

JUNE 11, 2015

GENRE: MONSTER
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

There's a moment in Jurassic World where I actually got teleported back to 1993, when 13 year old me was blown away by Spielberg's original film. It's early on, when the younger of two brothers who serves as one of the film's eleven or so main characters opens the window in his hotel room and gets his (and our) first look at the theme park, fully functional and packed with tourists. John Williams' terrific theme swells and the camera gives us a nice hero shot of John Hammond's dream, presumably never realized while he was still alive. I even came close to misting up a bit; it's a super calculated moment, to be sure, but damned if it didn't work exactly as it was intended.

Unfortunately the movie as a whole failed to recapture the spirit and awe of what made Jurassic Park one of the biggest films of all time (and one of my personal favorites, I should mention). This, of course, is nothing new for a JP sequel - even Spielberg himself couldn't get it totally right with 1997's The Lost World, and I came close to fully disliking 2001's Jurassic Park III (it's saved from total disaster by Sam Neill coming back and the pteranodons sequence). All I wanted out of this one was to be better than those, and maybe it is (I'm still debating between it and Lost World), but even if so it barely reaches that low bar, and ranks as yet another bit of evidence that maybe Spielberg should have applied the same good sense he had with ET and Jaws and not made a sequel (or, in the latter's case, simply not gotten himself involved).

It's interesting that all the sequels fail for different reasons, however. Lost World had the highest expectations because Spielberg himself was directing, but his mind was clearly elsewhere (Amistad?) and outside of a few key sequences (like the trailer going over the cliff) it lacked the crackerjack thrills of the original, not to mention the groundbreaking FX (one thing that unifies all the followups, quite incredulously, is that none of them have FX as good as the 1993 original, and they just look worse as time goes on). As for Jurassic Park III, it's easy enough to point a finger at Joe Johnston, who has made exactly two good movies (Honey I Shrunk The Kids and The Rocketeer*). I'm sure there were too many cooks in the kitchen on that one (William H. Macy was vocal, BEFORE release, about the frequent rewrites during shooting), but Johnston has proven time and time again that he has no sense of pacing, never worse than in this movie where he blows his wad with the Spinosaur way too early, gets his best scene somewhere in the middle (and one that he just recycled from a sequence removed from the original film), and skips a climax entirely.

So what's the problem here? It's hard to know if director Colin Trevorrow is to blame since he's only made one other feature and it was a tiny indie comedy/romance (Safety Not Guaranteed, which I saw for no other reason than to enjoy air conditioning during a heat wave and found it pleasant enough); there's just not enough evidence for or against him to really judge. With Spielberg, and even Johnston, we know they can do better, but with him? 20 years down the road we might be wishing his other movies were as good as this. But he IS one of the four credited writers, none of whom are Steven Spielberg or ubiquitous Legendary head Thomas Tull, who probably got their say. Add in the other producers, the fact that the movie has been in development for a decade (meaning uncredited writers), and the increasing problem of FX movies like this (ones with release dates set in stone long before a script is complete) designing their big action scenes first so the CGI wizards can get started, and you can make a safe bet that the problem is that we're watching something like five different movies at once. Some of those movies seem like they'd be really great, others not so much. Jammed together, it just creates a schizophrenic experience; there's no real central character, but as an ensemble it doesn't really work because everyone seems like they're in different movies.

Take the brothers I mentioned earlier. I kept hoping there would be a line explaining that the older one was bipolar or perhaps suffered from Multiple Personality Disorder, and that the younger one was actually mentally challenged, because it would certainly explain their behavior. The younger one is like 12, but acts like a 5 year old in some scenes (he also has weird Rain Man-esque tics that show up on occasion, but like just about everything in this movie, are inconsistent). The older one is a horndog that begins just about all of his early scenes ogling female tourists, but there is no payoff for any of this (hell it's barely even MENTIONED), and he alternates his attitude from scene to scene with no rhyme or reason. At times he's a typical older brother/sullen teenager who hates that he has to hang out with his little brother at this dumb dino park, and others he's super protective and seemingly having more fun than the other one. They also have a bizarre relationship with their aunt's assistant; they seem to hate each other, prompting them to run away when she's not looking and go off on their own, but why they didn't get along with her is anyone's guess. When (spoiler) the assistant is killed later in the film, it seems a death befitting a character we really hate (especially since she's the first female to be killed in the series, interestingly enough), but whatever made her deserve such a fate was clearly part of an earlier script or cut of the movie that also established their antagonistic relationship with her. As it is, her death might actually be her longest scene in the movie; even her introduction is bizarrely discarded, with Trevorrow's camera floating up and away just as the boys meet her, as if she wasn't a character we needed to concern ourselves with.

Then there's Bryce Dallas Howard, as their aunt who also happens to be one of the higher ups at the park. She's a generic workaholic movie character who can't remember her nephew's ages and spends most of her first scene with them looking at her phone and such, so of course she'll have to make amends by saving them. Except she really doesn't; they basically save themselves by fixing an old jeep they find (whatever) and driving back to the park, where they instantly get into trouble again only to be rescued by Chris Pratt's character. Howard eventually does something heroic, but it lacks oomph, and is hampered by the fact that her action is an obvious one (spoilers ahead!). You might notice throughout the movie that the T Rex hasn't shown up, so when their giant super dinosaur, the Indominous Rex, has seemingly gotten the upper hand, it's her idea to set the T Rex loose and lure it to the Indominous to let them fight it out. So even then she's not really doing anything as awesome as Ellie Sattler heading into the jungle and turning all the power back on or even Malcolm's daughter kicking some raptors around - she's just opening a gate.

She's the one that cynically/metaphorically tackles the modern blockbuster movie, though. In one of the movie's few truly interesting ideas, it treats the Indominous as a metaphor for summer blockbusters - created by people jamming things together with no real passion, used to feed a hungry public who demands something bigger and better (apparently, Jurassic World has been open so long that the public is getting bored with mere T Rexes and Raptors). A better movie would have used this concept and ran with it for its entire runtime (in fact, we HAVE that better movie - it's called 22 Jump Street), but here... you guessed it, it gets dropped. Had they wanted to actually SAY anything about the mega-blockbuster problem, it would end smaller, letting real ideas and strong characters save the day. Instead, the movie just gives us a four way dino fight, staged like the mere two way one at the end of the first movie but on a grander, longer scale.

And yet, that part IS kind of fucking awesome, to put it bluntly. Nitpickers like myself are being beat up online by the "So what? It's just a movie!" type arguments (they seem to forget that all movies are "just movies" and most of them aren't this erratic, including the others in this very series, but whatever), and I suspect it's because the climax is so damn enjoyable, with a raptor sitting on top of a T Rex as they battle what's basically a bigger, different colored T Rex. Sending the audience out on a high note is a fine way to help them forget about any issues they may have had getting there (it's the same reason JP3 satisfied almost no one, because it just stops instead of offering a big finish). It lasts just long enough to be epic and not so long that it gets tiresome, and keeps the humans in the frame to appreciate the scale of it. I just wish the movie offered more terrific set-pieces like it, because it really kinda lacks in that department. They're all conceptually fine and provide highlights (like when a dinosaur eating a person is itself eaten by a bigger dinosaur), but the lack of cohesion and random storytelling that the movie suffers from nearly start to finish keeps them at bay. A car chase, a shootout, or even a dinosaur attack on its own is fine, but it becomes GREAT when it's paying off part of a good story or is the next natural step for its hero characters. Jurassic World never manages to hit that mark because everyone is so random and the movie has so many pointless diversions. For example, Pratt and Howard go off to find the kids after their park transportation vehicle (the gyrospheres you've seen in the trailers) gets smashed up in a restricted are (the kids just casually drive it into one - if Jurassic World spares no expense, why can't they invest a few bucks in the same tech that keeps me from taking my Target shopping cart any further than the parking lot?), which should be the sort of thing that drives the plot from here on out. But no! First they have Pratt make a joke about how he's not a tracker and then they track them just fine (why not cut the line? Pratt's character is defined by whatever the scene needs him to do anyway), and on top of that it doesn't even matter since the kids make their way back on their own, making their rescue attempts a total waste of time.

As for Pratt, the movie benefits from the guy's effortless charm and screen presence, but they don't return the favor by giving him anything to do. That big thing of him riding alongside the raptors? He hates the idea, so it's really not a very cool moment in the movie when it happens, because he's basically doing it against his will as opposed to realizing some dream he had. It's actually the idea of Vincent D'Onofrio's character, who has the usual evil science company plan of turning the monsters into a military weapon (the movie jerks off Aliens almost as often as it does Jurassic Park), and is the de facto human villain even though he really doesn't do anything evil. I'm sure there was some version where he caused the chaos to happen in order to justify implementing his idea, but it's more Pratt's fault than his if you think about it (Pratt enters the cage where the Indominous is held, and it uses the same gate he does to escape), and later when Pratt punches him in the face I actually had to sit and wonder why he did, never coming up with a satisfying answer. D'Onofrio is up to shady shit with Dr. Wu (the one returning character), but Pratt had no way of knowing that and knew exactly why things had gotten so bad, so I have no idea why he suddenly took it out on ol Vinny, who despite having a different viewpoint is actually trying to save the human lives that are in danger. The park owner is also more to blame, since he crashes his helicopter in the aviary (which we never see prior to it being partially destroyed) letting all the flying dinos out to wreak havoc, another thing that happened without D'Onofrio's involvement.

I could go on and on, but I think I've provided enough examples of how damn sloppy the movie is, populated by several things that seem like payoffs to moments we never saw. I know that blockbusters are kind of made by committee and have several more writers than are credited, but rarely do you see the seams of that patchwork process as badly as you do here. Make fun of Armageddon all you want (I thought of it since the two films share DP John Schwartzman, and it is known for having several writers), but even its harshest critics can't really claim that the movie has no consistency or sense of structure. If Armageddon was like this movie, Bruce Willis would refuse to go into space and then suit up in the next scene, someone would murder Billy Bob Thornton with Bay treating it like a crowd-pleasing moment, and the asteroid wouldn't be destroyed by the nuke but by, I dunno, the sun punching it out of nowhere. At the end of the day, a movie can be as dumb as it wants with regards to real world logic, as long as it's consistent with itself - and that's where Jurassic World drops the ball. The fun scenes are enough to give it a pass, and it's got some spot on humor (the yokel kid laughing as he rode a baby triceratops was incredible), but the entire two hour runtime plays out in fits and starts, with nearly every scene feeling like something that got added in during post-production instead of a part of an organic whole. Maybe that's part of its half-assed anti-blockbuster joke, but that doesn't make the movie any more compelling.

That said, the audience clapped at the end and it's made like 180 million dollars in 3 days, so what do I know?

What say you?

*I know folks love Captain America, and I am one of them... for its first hour or so. Then it turns into a mess, for the same reasons described above for Jurassic III. And Winter Soldier was infinitely better with different directors, so nyeah.

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Poltergeist of Borley Forest (2013)

JUNE 1, 2015

GENRE: GHOST, TEEN
SOURCE: DVD (OWN COLLECTION)

A friend of mine made a haunted house movie that was pretty well received by those who saw it, and years later he still busts my balls about it because he knows I dislike haunted house movies more often than not and figured I'd hate it. But I actually quite liked it, and since I did I've tried to keep more of an open mind about such fare since. Alas, movies like the Poltergeist remake and now The Poltergeist of Borley Forest are exactly the sort of bland things that made me dislike the sub-genre in the first place. I know these kind of movies CAN work on me even as an adult, but whatever that secret ingredient is that makes me like so few of them is definitely missing here.

To be fair it's more of a typical ghost film than a haunted house one (the original title was "You Will Love Me", I assume it's been retitled due to the timeliness of its DVD release - very Asylum-level thinking, Image), but it's got several tropes of the HH film, and just about every (attempt at a) scare takes place inside the heroine's home, so it's safe to put it alongside the actual Poltergeists and The Haunting in your virtual video store shelves. The key difference is that our heroine, a fairly obnoxious girl named Paige, attracts the poltergeist's attention in the titular woods and it follows her home, where it does most of its thing before a climax that returns to the woods. Perhaps if they spent more time there than in the nondescript suburban home that serves as the primary location, the film would be a little more exciting, or at least less drab to look at.

I'll give them this much - at least they didn't go found footage. There's actually a focus on tech - Paige's confiscated/reclaimed cell phone is a major plot point and two of the male characters spend giant chunks of their screentime looking at computers - so ironically it wouldn't be much of a stretch to think that these kids filmed everything, and it was shot in 2011 when such films were all the rage. But no, it's traditionally shot, at least in a general sense. Part of what undoes the film is the director's obnoxious tendency to shoot scenes by panning or tracking back and forth as the actor talks. It's fine (if ill-fitting) for scenes of someone sitting alone or master shots of a group doing something, but when he does it during a conversation it might cause a headache. With careful planning the approach might work, but the execution just has two closeups being cut to back and forth like a traditional conversation in a movie, but with the camera jarringly moving around and none of the cuts coming off gracefully. It's hard to explain why it doesn't work without actually seeing it, but trust me - it'll drive you nuts too if you bother to watch the movie.

As to whether or not you should do that... I'd advise against it. The plot isn't too bad (especially for a teen-friendly horror film) but the clunky presentation does it no favors, and it's so drawn out (100+ minutes!) that it's likely to easily lose the attention of its target audience long before the story kicks into gear. None of the actors are particularly good (though I enjoyed the guy playing the doctor's seeming attempt at a Malcolm McDowell impression), and again the heroine isn't exactly a character you will instantly fall in love with. She's kind of snooty and childish, and we barely get to know her before she's put in danger, something the movie can't quite recover from. From that point she's either trying to figure out what's going on, or seemingly forgetting about it entirely as she is wooed by a new coworker of her brother's, so there's nothing for us to latch onto. There's a subplot about her friend that was supposed to be with her when she went off alone in the woods and unleashed hell upon herself, but it's kind of a stupid one - she's mad at the friend for not showing up, but how is it her fault that Paige was dumb enough to go into the woods alone in the middle of the night?

At least I think that's why there is strife in this relationship that is never properly established before it becomes strained. At times the movie approaches Beneath the Mississippi-ian levels of bad audio recording, where conversations go by with the mic only really picking up one of the speaking actors, leaving the other one muffled and occasionally indecipherable. Weird echoes abound as well, as if people were recorded in a bathroom, and what I can only assume is an attempt to hide the bad recording with a frequent score is unsuccessful. This is the first feature film from the crew (a group of pals/filmmakers from Florida, named Liberty Lane Productions) after making several shorts - I can forgive the plodding storytelling on growing pains from filmmakers used to telling stories quickly, but not the abhorrent audio production. This is something they should have figured out after the first short, and apparently they still haven't gotten it right after four or five? Unacceptable.

The same problem plagues the behind the scenes video, which focuses on the project's origins and some of its production before randomly stopping, as if they were only halfway through editing the piece and ran out of time or something. At least it shows the fun way they pulled off the ghost above the bed" effect, by having a guy jump from a chair onto the bed and using the frames where he's in mid air to superimpose in slow speed over the footage of the girls in bed screaming. Cool, lo-fi trick that actually produces a kind of effective visual. And thankfully the piece explains that they had no money, were making the movie guerrilla style (cops were called for filming somewhere without permits), etc. Still doesn't explain why they couldn't bother to buy an extra lav mic for scenes with two people, but at least you can tell that they're enthusiastic and well-meaning about their film - the cynicism that permeates many an independent horror film is wholly absent here. It's the sort of thing that makes me wish I liked the movie more, because I see so many ones that are just made by people who want to make a buck and otherwise have no passion for what they're doing. These folks clearly do (or they're better actors than the ones they hired), but passion is just one of the things you need to make a good movie. Better luck next time! Seriously!

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Poltergeist (2015)

MAY 22, 2015

GENRE: HAUNTED HOUSE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

I've noted before that Poltergeist II: The Other Side was the first horror movie I ever saw in theaters, and thus it's very likely that the original Poltergeist was the first horror movie I saw, period (why would my mom take me to a sequel if I hadn't seen the original, especially if I was obviously kind of young for that stuff?). That said, it doesn't hold TOO much of a nostalgic grip on my heart - I quite like it, but I don't watch it over and over nor do I even consider it one of my 10 (20?) favorite horror films or anything like that. Just because it obviously played a big role in my horror fandom (and also made me afraid of clowns for a while there) doesn't mean I hold it sacred, and thus I went into the remake with an open mind.

It didn't take long for that optimism to fade, however. The impressive cast is unfortunately left to flounder by the painfully by-the-numbers script and unenthusiastic direction, turning in one of the more lifeless big-budget horror remakes I've seen in quite some time. I think I have to go back to the Platinum Dunes Nightmare on Elm Street to find a film with THIS much potential and THIS much talent (and, of course, THIS much money) all going toward a film where absolutely no one seems to really give a shit about anything that's on screen. I'd almost rather it was nigh on unwatchable and riddled with awful storytelling, acting, FX, etc - it would at least be MEMORABLE. This was so rote I had to go off to the little walkway into the theater (where I could still see the screen but no one could see me) to take notes on my phone, because I knew that if I waited until I wrote the review hours later, or even until I got into my car, I'd forget just about everything I had just seen.

Let's get the good out of the way, because it'll be quick. As I said, the cast is great. Even a hack like Gil Kenan is incapable of making Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt anything less than the most charming and likable people you're likely to meet, and they do a fine job recreating that easy, lived-in chemistry that Craig The Nelson and JoBeth Williams had in the original. The kids are also good, and Jared Harris is always a pleasure so casting him as Tangina, essentially, was an inspired choice. And while the script plods along using the original as a guide every step of the way, there's a scene that seems to be paying homage to the sequels, with a garage based attack (a la the first sequel's climax) involving a hand coming out of a puddle in the cement (like Poltergeist III). And Rockwell drinks from a bottle and spits up some worms (hallucination scene), in what HAS to be a callback to II's most famous scare. Not that I particularly love those movies and was overjoyed to see them referenced, but I like the idea of giving them a nod anyway. Also, they didn't give anyone the same names - the family dynamic is exactly the same (two daughters, one son as the middle child) but it's not the Freelings (it's the Bowens) and the first names don't match either.

But that'd mean more if they weren't doing the exact same things in the exact same order. The oldest daughter plays more of a role here than the original Dominique Dunne character, but otherwise every single beat is pretty much the same until the final 15 minutes. The tree, the clown, the TV (static instead of snow), the youngest disappearing, the frazzled, sleep deprived visit to the paranormal team... it's all there, with no real diversions of note. It's not a word for word copy like Psycho, but it might as well have been, because at least then we could just settle into their groove in some way. Instead, they will continually offer new wrinkles or ideas, only for the end result to just be whatever happened in Tobe Hooper's movie. It's like, if Hooper was at point A and took a right then a left to reach point B, Gil Kenan would go straight and then take a right - they'd both be at the same spot, so what does it matter what path they took? I kept hoping for a major change, like they were trying to trick us by being familiar only to throw a major curveball (kill off one of the characters, perhaps), but no. The ending is a bit different but in a way that means nothing unless there's a sequel, which I hope there isn't.

The script also feels like the end result of two different approaches, which, like the Nightmare remake (and also The Fog), renders some plot points completely baffling. For example, the dad isn't in real estate this time, he's a recently laid off exec from John Deere, and moved to the house not because it was part of his company, but because they could afford it. Ignoring the idea that a family led by two people who don't work (she's a stay at home mom) are somehow "reduced" to buying a two story home in the suburbs (they throw some power lines up to make it look like a crappy neighborhood, but it's actually really nice and probably a lot better than most audience members can afford), we still have to wonder, then, why does the poltergeist fixate on them? It's the same plot as before - the housing development was built over a cemetery where the graves were left intact while the tombstones were relocated - but without that connection that Nelson's character had to (flimsily) explain why they specifically were being targeted, I spent the whole movie wondering why none of their neighbors were being harassed. There's some hint that the power lines are involved in the freaky occurrences, but their house isn't even the closest one to them, not by a long shot. For the majority of the film, Kenan ignores the existence of the neighbors entirely to avoid explaining this potential plot hole, but then when their house explodes (it's not a spoiler, it happened in the original and I've been perfectly clear that this movie does nothing different) you see cars in every driveway and even a few neighbors in the street watching.

There are also some new touches that add absolutely nothing, like an alarm system that they spend an inordinate amount of time establishing considering there's no payoff. The oldest daughter's cell phone gets fried (presumably from the ghost, we don't actually see it) and Rockwell buys her a new one, and that's that. And Harris' character is a lame TV show host, but he never even tries to use the family's plight for his show (Rockwell says something like "I told him he can't film", but since Harris never brought it up, it carries no weight). It's like half the people calling the shots on this thing wanted it to be identical, and the other half wanted to carve their own path and really modernize it, and Kenan just said yes to both parties, so you have all these potential new ideas to explore getting lip service before the film gets back on the 33 year old track established by the original. It got to the point where I was happy to see some CGI FX because at least it was something that they couldn't be copying from Hooper for a few minutes.

And that's the other odd thing - there are simply no scares in this movie. The clown doll probably would have worked if it wasn't shown in every trailer, and even if it still did it's kind of pathetic that it would be the highlight by far. The tree is less terrifying than the one from Harry Potter, and once Carol Anne, er, Maddie, gets taken they don't even really try for anything else that might jolt an audience (getting under our skin or offering legit suspense, at this point, would be expecting far too much from this enterprise). This is the 2nd major horror release in a row after Unfriended that is bizarrely lacking in even generic terror - it's not that the scares don't work so much as they simply aren't THERE. It certainly FEELS like a horror movie, but Kenan and the writers forgot to add those actual elements; even when copying Hooper it never approaches any semblance of fear or terror. I got more worked up during the trailers for other genre films (Insidious 3 and Crimson Peak) than I did throughout this entire thing, which is embarrassing considering how easy a sucker I am for family horror now that I have a kid (whose birthday is today!). I felt my pulse rise a tad when Maddie comes back unconscious from the other side, but that's about it - and that's like 75 minutes into the movie or whatever. Little late to start pumping the audience's adrenaline, wouldn't you say?

But the cast! It's a testament to all of them, particularly Rockwell, that the movie is even watchable at all. Sure, his droll one-liners are less amusing when his daughter is missing, but he's still making the most of a thankless role and never once acting like it's beneath his talents, which it most certainly is. Ditto DeWitt, who gets even less to do - there's a halfhearted attempt to make the son the center of the movie this time, but with everyone hellbent on copying the movie where he was NOT the main focus, it doesn't really work. But it still keeps mom from diving into the closet to rescue her daughter, which means DeWitt never gets a big moment (there's no pool either; the alternate Kenan offers is the movie's low point, for sure). There should be some sort of law against casting actors this good in a crummy movie like this and not even giving them a big hero moment to make up for the rest of the crap they had to walk through. I hope they were paid well, at least.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

Maggie (2015)

MAY 10, 2015

GENRE: ZOMBIE
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)

Imagine an episode of The Walking Dead where Carl gets bit in the first scene, and the rest of the episode focuses entirely on Rick wrestling with the inevitable as the others keep saying "kill him, now!". It'd probably be one of the best episodes of the series, it would be the one they use when trying to get Andrew Lincoln an award, and for once the dumber audience members might not complain about the lack of zombie action. Unfortunately for Maggie, it's a full length film that amounts to that exact, very minimal plot, and at 90 minutes it's not quite enough to sustain a feature's demands - even if it does have one of the best performances its star has ever given.

Said star is, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a role that could just as easily have been played by George Clooney or Ed Harris or any other elder statesman actor you can think of - there is nothing "Schwarzenegger-ian" about it. Take whatever image you might get in your mind from "a zombie movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger" and I guarantee you won't see anything like it in the film. There are only three traditional (meaning largely anonymous) undead in the film, and while they all die at Arnold's hands, it's not played for action heroics (one of them is actually off-screen, in fact). They simply illustrate the tangible threat of a zombie for anyone who's never seen a zombie movie before, and that's their function - this is not a traditional horror movie. The introduction of the first zombie (in a gas station) is sort of a scary moment, but the rest of the film is straight up drama, with the process of Maggie (Abigail Breslin) slowly turning into a zombie playing out the same way a movie about a person with cancer or Alzheimers or whatever would depict the illness taking over.

It's not the first film to take this approach, nor will it be the last. The appeal is seeing Arnold go through these motions, and I couldn't help but think the movie is 20 years too late. I love that the big guy is taking chances and doing different things at this point in his career, but not only is he too old for the role (Maggie is 16ish and his oldest of three children - he's 65 years old!), but the change of pace would have been more eye-opening had it come along when he was still at the top of his game. We've seen him do the grieving dad thing in other films (including End of Days, his only other horror movie) and we've also seen him take on roles that reduced his usual superhuman stature (Last Stand, for example). Hell, even the new Terminator movie seems to suggest he's past his due date. It'd be more effective and exciting to see him in this state in between, say, True Lies and Eraser, where he'd not only be age appropriate but also the idea of him NOT going around blowing zombies away and quipping would be less of a shock.

It'd also help the fact that the movie itself isn't particularly that novel. Arnold's casting is pretty much the only offbeat choice; the story has no real wrinkles to speak of, and you pretty much know how it'll play out once you've met all of its 7 or 8 characters of note. There are a couple of cops who keep checking in; one is older and a friend to Arnold, the other not as sympathetic and very much gung-ho about killing anyone that's infected as soon as possible. Then there's the neighbor family, where the mom (not infected) hides her zombie husband and daughter, all of whom exist for no other reason than to show Arnold a glimpse of what may happen if he ignores everyone's warnings to bring Maggie to quarantine. Or he could take her out himself, which is the advice he gets from his doctor friend who supplies him the cocktail that will very painfully end her life before she turns and becomes dangerous. It's all stuff we've seen before in some form or other (including on Walking Dead itself), so once the thrill of seeing Arnold going through these motions wears off, we're left with something a bit too threadbare and familiar to really hit the nerves it wants to.

I mean, sure, it gets pretty touching at times; there are a few moments of levity between Arnold (I forget his character's name, not that it matters) and Maggie that are wonderful, and it's also where he's at his best. There's a good one where they make fun of his wife's cooking (Maggie is from his first marriage, the woman is dead), and another later where they talk about her mom and his old truck - these scenes more than make up for the (too) many ones that have Arnold and/or Maggie just sort of wandering or driving around the dying world, with director Henry Hobson indulging in what seems like an obsession with focusing on a random object and leaving everything else in soft focus (including his actors) behind it. This is Hobson's first feature after a lengthy career in both video game trailers and title sequences, and I couldn't help but think he was trying to distance himself from that sort of flashiness by slowing everything to a crawl here. I knew there wouldn't be much action (it's a PG-13 movie, for starters), but I was hoping there would be more to the narrative than what I already knew from its one sentence description.

The script by John Scott 3 also shoots itself in the foot by mentioning something far more interesting that we never get to see - the quarantine lab where infected are sent. Apparently they aren't separated; if you were just bit or just shy of being a drooling full blown zombie, you get thrown in the same room, where they apparently let the problem solve itself by just letting them eat each other. Gruesome, sure, but I can't think of anything that's ever dealt with that sort of scenario (sort of like a prison drama), so it's a shame we only hear about it (practically in passing) instead of seeing it. The ending is also a letdown; I won't spoil the particulars, but there's a perspective shift that actually robs the film and its audience of a final moment with a main character. It sounds weird, but I wanted the ending to devastate me, and the choice they take didn't do that - it just left me kind of with blue balls. There's a fade to white, the sort of one where you know the next thing you'll see is credits, and I almost shouted "Oh come ON!" to the other 5 people in the theater (including a very old lady, who made me sadder than the movie - it was Mother's Day, why's she watching a zombie movie by herself?).

I know this is mainly a negative review, but I want to stress that the movie is still worth a look. Arnold's performance (and Breslin's, though that's not as revealing as she's consistently great), the terrific score, and the charming father/daughter bonding scenes are enough to make it worth seeing, though you don't need to rush out right now to do so. I really wanted to like it and was quite anxious to see it (I cut my Skype call to my mother-in-law short to go! And I really like her!), but after 30 minutes I realized the movie had already played its entire hand and we were just also kind of waiting for Maggie to turn, which may have been the point but if so it didn't translate to an effective feature (again, an episode of a TV show would be ideal for this exact scenario/number of characters). As long as you go in knowing that it's so stripped down that it's almost weightless, you'll probably find a lot to appreciate and enjoy, especially if you're a die-hard fan of Arnold's that still looks forward to his ass-kicking adventures with the same fervor you did as a kid. I'll give it this much - his crying has come a long way since End of Days' embarrassing snowglobe scene, so for that alone it's a winner.

What say you?

PLEASE, GO ON...

The Drownsman (2014)

MAY 4, 2015

GENRE: SLASHER, SUPERNATURAL
SOURCE: BLU-RAY (OWN COLLECTION)

There have been a number of horror films about people dealing with their fears (The Fear and its sequel, the more recent Fear Clinic), but apart from agoraphobia - a desired affliction for producers because it's a good excuse to not shoot outdoors - most of them present a variety of different things that scare its characters. Someone's afraid of the dark, another one's afraid of spiders, etc. The Drownsman is one of those rare ones to focus on one particular phobia, and it's the FIRST I can recall where said phobia is aquaphobia, aka the fear of water*. Since it's a horror movie, it proves to be not an unfounded one, as one by one her friends realize (too late, of course, since this is a slasher) that their friend isn't crazy - the water really IS out to get them.

Well, what's IN the water I mean, namely the title character. But while her fear kicks off after a near-drowning in a lake, the film quite enjoyably opts to limit the size of the water sources that the Drownsman emerges from. Rather than constantly have the characters find ways to go into lakes, oceans, or even tubs (after the first 20 minutes, in the scene that springs him on the group), The Drownsman comes at them from puddles, leaks, a rinsing station at a salon, even a small spill from a bottle of water. There's a certain Freddy-esque fun to these scenes; just as the Elm St movies allowed anything to happen as long as it was possible for the character to doze off, here he can show up if there's even a drop of water nearby, which in a normal world there almost always is (hell he can get me right now from three different spots in my office alone).

And like some Freddy kill scenes we see our characters being pulled from the real world into the Drownsman's, allowing the movie to sort of double up on its kill scenes. Like, we see them doing whatever and then UH OH WATER! and getting pulled into their desk or a sink or whatever (director Chad Archibald employs some great lo-fi techniques to sell these images instead of CGI - big thumbs up there), and the scenes are usually drawn out in a kind of Final Destination-y way, making them feel like full blown death scenes on their own. But then the character wakes up in The Drownsman's little dungeon (akin to Freddy's boiler room) and they get killed for real, in a less elaborate but not exactly instant death sequence of its own. There are only four or five kills in the movie, but this gives them double the action and even more suspense; you can hope they don't get sucked into his world in the first place, and then you can hope they find their way out of it.

Admittedly, this also allows Archibald to pad his runtime a bit. It's not a particularly elaborate story (not really a complaint, it IS a slasher film after all), and even with the lengthened kill scenes the movie still runs south of 90 minutes with slow credits. I wouldn't have noticed if not for an awkward omission that at first I thought was intentional: there's a curious shortage of male characters in the movie. When we meet our group of four pals (a fifth is introduced later), one of them has just gotten engaged at the party that they've all just exited, and asks our heroine Madison to be her maid of honor. Then Madison nearly drowns (unrelated!) and we cut to a year later, where the now-bride is furious at Madison for missing the wedding. We can see that it's raining, and Madison's eyes widen at the sight of a puddle on the floor near the bride, so we can assume her accident has left her with a paralyzing fear of the water - but why couldn't we just see this wedding? Why does the audience have to piece together something that drives the plot?

Additionally, throughout the film we never once meet the groom, making me wonder for a while if the director was intentionally sidelining all of the males for some reason. It's around 30 minutes before we meet our first male character (an older guy whose daughter disappeared, presumably taken by The Drownsman), and from then on, apart from the big guy himself, I think the only other male is an orderly at the hospital where one of the exposition-y people is housed, someone who has like 15 seconds of screentime. Everyone else, even background extras, is a female - it almost HAS to be a conscious choice, but for what purpose I do not know. It's a relief in one respect, however - without a guy around the movie is the rare modern slasher that doesn't include a goddamn love triangle, and for that I am thankful.

I also appreciated Archibald's direction, which included things like cutaways and closeups (no longer a given, sadly) but wasn't over edited to the point of incoherency. In fact he seems to be inspired a bit by the likes of James Wan; the trips to the Drownsman's domain, bathed in red (but with slices of green here and there) reminded me of Insidious (specifically the Lipstick Demon's lair), and his love of cutaways to dripping water recalls Black Sabbath (a frequent and acknowledged influence on Wan). The script isn't the best thing ever written by any means, but the direction more or less made up for it - Anchor Bay's track record as of late has been pretty woeful, which I know because I've dutifully watched just about everything they've sent me - this and Atticus Institute are the only ones in what seems like a year that I've enjoyed enough to write about. Neither are classics, but their hearts are in the right place and they get more right than wrong, which (again) is rare enough to sadly warrant mentioning.

I just wish the movie was more like its cover art! I admit this one might have been pushed down in the pile of movies I plan to watch if not for the very 80s, big VHS box-inspired cover, which suggested something more schlocky and fun than the film actually offered. It's actually a pretty serious movie, and as someone who is afraid of all kinds of fish (!) I can't really mock the idea of a person shrieking and getting into fetal position because it starts to rain - everyone's afraid of something, and those who aren't afraid of that thing probably find it hard to understand why. That said, I did have to chuckle a bit when (spoiler?) our heroine triumphantly drinks a glass of water to face her fear (she had been getting fluids intravenously), because it's followed by her fairly easily going out in the rain, which you'd think would be the harder thing for her. It'd be like if I beat my ichthyophobia by gobbling down a filet o fish, and then casually wandered into the New England Aquarium. This isn't how baby steps works!

So it's an OK movie, a perfectly good rental - I can't really see a purchase making much sense as it's not the kind of thing you're likely to rewatch. Plus, the Bay didn't bother adding any bonus features whatsoever (not even a trailer), and the audio mix is a bit wonky - the requisite shrieks during the climax were all distorted, prompting me to lower my volume to -45 or so (it's usually -30, -25). Didn't have trouble before then, but it was loud/obnoxious enough to warrant mentioning, especially as it was near the end and thus if you're watching late (as it is a horror movie) the offending part will likely wake a roommate, possibly even a neighbor, if you happen to have it up to normal volume. Otherwise the presentation is solid, and it's an improvement over the team's Antisocial, a not-great "infected" (read: zombie, basically) movie that cribbed a bit too much from The Signal for my liking, though it had some fun ideas (the zombie plague spread through social media!). That one has a sequel already in the can, and this one ends with the seeming promise of a followup - guess which one I'm more excited about?

What say you?

*Don't say Jaws, you wannabe know-it-all. Big difference between a character trait and a narrative.

PLEASE, GO ON...

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